There is a well-known saying: write about what you know. In recent years, many of the most interesting examples of independent theatre have been autobiographical (or at least tap into familial anecdotes). Sophie Bentinck’s show Pauline very much falls into both categories, as it navigates the search for one’s roots in tandem with personal identity.
Eschewing a conventional narrative, Pauline embraces the meta- aspects of the show, as Bentinck not only addresses what the audience will witness, she makes a point about the segments her mother Anna will selectively see, due to her failing memory.
Curiosity about one’s family history is natural and perhaps spurred on by her own happy relationship with her mother, Bentinck initially thinks that researching the life of Pauline (her grandmother) will be cathartic for all. Nothing could be further from the truth…
Even without the events that occurred later in life, Pauline would cast a large shadow over the lives of daughter and grandaughter. A countess who had a talent for writing, as well as a cause célèbre whose ‘parties’ were legendary, Pauline’s joie de vivre is remembered by those who lived near her.
In contrast to the ‘larger than life’ stories of Pauline, we hear how Anna has always been a “superhero” to Bentinck, an attentive mother who has always been there for her. However, it is perhaps because Bentinck intutively knows her personality is more akin to Pauline’s that she is drawn to her remarkable grandmother.
As Bentinck explores the differences and parallels between herself and Pauline, we find Bentinck is very candid when talking about personal experiences. While Pauline and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag are very much their own thing, both shows share a high degree of fearlessness with their depictions of women as complicated individuals – possessing an acute degree of self-awareness, yet still susceptible to their own inscurities and the sway of other people.
The show hints at the subliminal importance of the diary of Anne Frank during Bentinck’s formative years and because of this, it colours (for better or for worse) her initial reception to Pauline’s diary. Very matter of fact in tone, the extracts of Pauline’s diaries that are performed in the show reveal a ‘mundane’ existence – what happens the remaining 95% of the time, when not attending events.
In terms of tone and content, Pauline’s diaries (which span from the Second World War to the 1960s), share themes and qualities with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn and Sylvia Plath’s own diaries – the road to entropy…
Perhaps the most insightful of the ‘epistles’ read in the show is Pauline’s self-written psychiatric evaluation. On the one hand it is incredibly lucid and dispassionate, free from ego. Yet it also obliquely depicts feelings of inadequacy regarding Pauline’s own intelligence and social standing. While not in the foreground of the show, the clues surrounding Henry (Bentinck’s grandfather) hint at a fractured marriage and that beneath the surface lies a dynamic akin to that of Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath…
As the bridge between the two generations, Anna’s own personal story is perhaps the most enigmatic in the show. The fact that Bentinck’s enquries into the past trigger Anna’s short-term memory loss suggests unresolved trauma. As this trait is also present in her mother and daughter, it also points to a genetic link – something touched upon in Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. In any case, Anna’s own narrative is fertile ground for futher exploration, with regards to how trauma can lie dormant in even the most ‘together’ of people.
Pauline could have been full of Sturm und Drang from the off, but under Noa Wagner’s direction, the show is sprinkled with enough levity to stop it falling under the weight of unearthed emotions. When dealing with the aftermath of suicide in the family, the psychological pain is never truly expunged, only shifted in a different form to others. In Bentinck’s personal odyssey, we see similar patterns of events with Pauline, who wrestled with her identity. But the diaries Pauline left behind are also a boon to Bentinck and future generations – a reminder that while at times they may not be loved, understood, or seen for who they really are, there have been others who know exactly what they’re going through.
© Michael Davis 2021
Pauline ran at the Pleasanc Theatre from 27th to 30th July.